Venture Finance in the MENA Region: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

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I recently had the pleasure and honor of participating in the Digital Mashraq Forum (DMF) under the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship in Jordan and the World Bank Group.
The high-level affair to discuss the future of digitalization in the region attracted upwards of 500 attendees from public and private organizations across 25 countries. The DMF hosted a VIP pre-reception and an immersive two-day program with 26 panels, 69 speakers, 40 startups and 22 investors on board. A commendable success to orchestrate such a powerful platform.

The caliber of men and women was unexpected, to say the least. It was most certainly a remarkable experience to be surrounded by so many educated, talented, sophisticated, pleasant, informed, ambitious, engaged and relentless humans for three days.

Although a regional event, it was without a doubt global. Entrepreneurs, companies, VCs and public officials from MENA, Europe, Asia, Africa and throughout the US all doing great things.

Back in Business: Ripe, Rich and Ready

It is no secret – The Kingdom of Jordan is on the brink of breaking through bureaucracy to bring in billions of dollars and it’s only a day away. The events taking place are defying the antiquated sentiments that postulate a lack of resources as an uncontended culprit preventing a rapid evolution to modern economic and social systems. The fact is there is abundant capital and it’s high-time this wealth is unlocked and effectively allocated to achieve its full impact-potential.

Public-Private Partnerships

Once again, it is as much about the caliber of people and companies and the ambitious agenda the DMF sets to advance as what it symbolizes. The conference concluded with the release of “Amman Communique,” announcing Jordan’s plan to launch a regulatory reform process and digital transformation strategy by the end of 2019 to improve the Kingdom’s business environment. The communique also addressed the government’s commitment to open the National Broadband Network (7,000 kilometers of fiber) for public-private partnerships (PPP).

For Jordan, the meeting was one of many recent government-backed initiatives that emphasize its commitment to back and empower entrepreneurs, create a conducive business environment, and advance robust public-private cooperation.

The Role of the Central Bank

My partners at Blackhawk and I strongly believe the Central Bank of Jordan can serve a fundamental role in leading a PPP that will open up the flood gates of capital.

Consider Lebanon, a neighboring country in the Levant, that instituted an impactful PPP model. In 2014, The Banque du Liban (Central Bank of Lebanon) introduced Circular 331 to bolster the Lebanese ‘Knowledge Economy.’ It is proving effective despite the Central Bank’s massive debt and the country’s stormy geopolitical climate.

In fact, Circular 331 which encourages commercial banks to invest in startups is clearly one of the boldest and smartest initiatives undertaken so far by the Lebanese government. For the uninformed, the Central Bank now guarantees up to 75 percent of the value of a commercial bank’s investments into a startup. That move opened up a potential of $400 million that could be invested into venture capital funds or directly into startups. Circular 331 has clearly taken it up a notch by encouraging venture financing.

This model can be similarly emulated in Jordan to open up the flood gates of capital second to none; especially given the fact that Jordan has half the Debt/GDP ratio of Lebanon.

The Flood Gates of Capital

Purposing a public-private partnership of this magnitude to create professionally managed pools of capital in Jordan will create an octopus of opportunities:

  1. More Capital: The capital injection will increase the number and variety of VCs which would in turn fund and empower more entrepreneurs.
  2. Take Jordanian Companies Global: Such program would establish new VCs of the highest caliber with qualified experience that not only meet local-standards but have the aptitude to fair-well globally was well. More globally competitive VC’s mean more globally competitive companies.
  3. Larger Pools of Capital: It will serve to develop and expand the current VC system exponentially. Most VCs in Jordan today are basically restricted, for the large part, to seed-stage. This opportunity would allocate capital to equip new VCs to mature and develop seed to later-stage companies. Larger VC pools of capital will serve to accelerate the growth and scalability of the companies they fund, positioning them compete in global markets.
  4. Empowered Entrepreneurs: With new VCs and larger funds, a whole new spectrum of entrepreneurs will have access to capital. Consider the shift in dynamics that would follow – Consider companies or entrepreneurs that don’t conform to their capital providers but are forced to comply to secure their financial survival. This desperation leads to discouragement which in turn stifles individual potential and the evolution of their enterprise. A robust VC model will pierce this paralysis and protect innovation capital, a source of national wealth.
  5. Green Light for Foreign Investment: This government-backed initiative gives outsiders the greenlight – Jordan is open for business. The blessing and support of the Kingdom boosts investor confidence, garners respect from national leaders and will certainly serve in reaching their FDI targets, probably overnight.

Looking Ahead

Make no mistake about it. At the end of the day, it all boils down to access to professionally managed pools of capital that can make a real dent in the marketplace. You can have the smartest and most educated entrepreneurs on the planet but without “smart” capital backing them, their projects are nothing but a pie in the sky. Silicon Valley is a prime example in this regard. Without Sand Hill Road backing the entrepreneurial spirit and companies of the Valley back in the early 80s and 90s, the tech giants of today would have never existed.

Just as it has in the United States, the worldwide democratization of capital will democratize industrial assets and produce an explosion of job creation the world over. The MENA region needs this more than any region in the world. And the capital revolution, which so changed America in the last third of the 20th century, is only the prelude to the other two major revolutions of the 21st century — the worldwide democratization of venture financing and of knowledge. These three revolutions, each aided by emerging technology, provide hope that the 21st century will be able to avoid the terrible Middle East conflicts of the past hundred years and become a new Age of Enlightenment. Our children won’t have opportunities unless there are opportunities for everyone.

*Zana Nesheiwat is a Partner and wealth-curator at Blackhawk Partners, Inc. charged with building valuable brand assets, originating and optimizing strong partnerships, and advancing investment opportunities that benefit all stakeholders.

Blackhawk Partners Inc. is a New York based private “family office” that is in the business of originating, structuring and acting as equity investor in management-led buyouts, strategic minority equity investments, equity private placements, consolidations and buildups, and growth capital financings for both US and emerging market companies at all stages.

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The Financial Power of Impact Investing

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For many years the divide between instruments of philanthropy and investing has been clear cut. Investing strategies typically did not involve social organizations focused on non-governmental organization (NGO) concerns. However, the advent of millennial investing power, the rise of social enterprises, and the need for further asset diversification have blurred the line between both industries. Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) investing, informally known as impact investing, is on the rise with both active and passive investors. For example, ESG assets under supervision at Goldman Sachs have grown from US$3.8bn in 2015 to US$6.5bn end of fiscal 2016. As Goldman Sachs poignantly stated, ESG investing is now mainstream even within the pension fund and insurance sectors.

Even though financing social causes has overlapped between philanthropy and ESG investing, by no means is the latter non-profit seeking. First, while impact investing may dive into sectors once thought as solely philanthropic, let us make it clear that the investing strategies used to generate returns do not veer from tradition asset management practices. Specific return objectives are set, even if the companies that are in the portfolio may comprise all social enterprises. In fact, Goldman Sachs recommends that investors should be even more aggressive with risk/return analyses when it comes to ESG portfolios, to ensure even more accountability. Traditional sectors tend to put the bottom line first by nature, so it is of utmost importance to hold for-profit social enterprises accountable for revenue and profit estimates.

U.S. Trust’s “Impact Investing: A Guide To Doing Good While Also Doing Well” gives an excellent overview of impact investing. According to the U.S. Trust, managed U.S. assets committed to impact investing in total grew from US$640 billion in 1995 to US$6.57 trillion at present. Impact investing can be broken down into further categories of socially responsible investing (SRI), faith based investing, green investing, and values based investing (VBI). For example, an investor who is against tobacco use but is not necessarily pro-environment may seek investment in an SRI portfolio, but not a green portfolio. As with traditional ETFs and mutual funds, diverse social investing asset classes are available via equities, bonds, REITs and even private equity. Investment funds including these ESG options in have indeed increased from 55 to 925 within the last two decades. In particular, U.S. Trust’s ESG investor pool jumped 23% from 2015, with a whopping 93% of millennial investors who have added ESG components to their portfolios!

ESG investing is an excellent mechanism to be considered by shareholders through engagement and by Board of Directors through guidance and governance. Rick Scott, Vice President of Finance and Compliance at the McKnight Foundation, gave great insight as to the need for adding and monitoring ESG components to investment strategic directions at the Board level. The McKnight Foundation has allocated 10% of its US$2bn portfolio strictly to impact investing with a focus on US clean water and carbon footprint. Scott enlightens that the Board must call for a “triple bottom-line for financial, programmatic, and learning return.” Boards must have an investment or risk committee assigned to give oversight on risk/return objectives specific to the triple bottom line, and with C-Suite determine the healthy mix of ESG and traditional components for portfolio investments. We have said time and time again that clear internal corporate governance goals and procedures, in this case adopting a “triple bottom line” approach, is the most pertinent form of corporate social responsibility an organization can practice.

While global institutional investors have now become ESG investing stalwarts, retail investors, individual private investors, and minor shareholders may still need direction in how to effectively embark on the ESG investing journey. In addition, the ESG investing sphere has been known to be have quite a few ‘greenwashers’ with more public relations talk than actual profit generating. As with any investment vehicle, extensive research is recommended. Global investment firm Cambridge Associates has developed the Impact Investing Benchmark which comprises 51 private investment closed-ended funds dealing strictly with the intent to generate social impact. From this data, Cambridge Associates created and MRI Database, and uses ImpactBase extensively as well. U.S. Trust as well has developed benchmarks via an IMPACTonomics™ program, which has specific in-house and third party impact investing platforms such as the Breckinridge Sustainable Bond Strategies and IMPAX Global Environmental Markets Fund.

Many have the misconception that impact investing precludes investing in traditional industries, such as the fossil fuel and mining industries. Absolutely not! The smart and savvy investor must see diversification opportunity in line with tailored return objectives. There is financial power in such comprehensive asset management. The end point is return on investment, whether from most profitable traditional, social, and technologically advanced companies in the market. A gold mining company with a strong, proven corporate responsibility background can share the same portfolio as a profitable microfinance company that lends globally to small entrepreneurs. Again, the crux of investing in any asset class lies with return objectives. ESG investing, like smart technology, is no longer the niche market. As Rick Scott and Goldman Sachs put it, the point is to find the “right tools for the right time.” The time is right to consider impact investment vehicles in tandem with traditional market portfolios.

SOURCES

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Smart v/s Wealthy

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While you may think that being smart, motivated, and talented would logically make you wealthy, unfortunately, this is often not the case.

Smart and talented people often have a flair for the unusual, complicated, or different. They don’t like to follow the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid), which is required to make money.

So, being smart or talented isn’t going to help you unless you can use those smarts to figure out a way to simplify those tasks that will make you money. This isn’t easy, because it goes against everything that you have ever done and is counter to how you were taught to think. However, it is necessary for a business to succeed and why smarts and talent alone don’t predict entrepreneurial success and hence wealth creation.

Too much to lose… and, with the most to lose, a wide range of other options available, and the penchant for more intricate, complex endeavors, don’t be surprised when the person “Most Likely to Succeed” from high school ends up in corporate America and one of the more average students finds success in his or her own business.

So what are the basics to know to make real money?

  1. Don’t get a salary. A salary will never make you money.
  2. Don’t try to save money by not buying stuff you need. That’s a myth. The best way to save money is to make more.
  3. Empower quality people by introducing them to each other. Introduce them and stay out of the way. This is real networking. Not fake networking where people hand business cards to strangers.
  4. When you have wealth, never invest more than 5% of your wealth in any one idea.
  5. Don’t enter regulated businesses or the ones with lots of competition. Enter a business with a monopoly. This means high profits, high perks, great education.
  6. Be around people who love you and whom you love. Eliminate people who bring you down.
  7. Look everywhere for what is hidden. The people who understand the wealth creation process hide the money very carefully. The people who don’t know have TV shows about it.
  8. Lose the bad habit of engaging in zero sum competitions with other smart people. Many smart people tend to flock to fields which are already saturated with other smart people. Only a limited number of people can become a top investment banker, law partner, Fortune 500 CEO or humanities professor. Yet smart people let themselves be funneled into these fields and relentlessly compete with each other for limited slots. They all but ignore other areas where they could be even more successful, and that are less overrun by super-smart people. Instead of thinking outside the box, smart people often think well within a box, a very competitive box that has been set up by other people and institutions to further someone else’s interests at the expense of the smart person.

Now that you know, go create the wealth you deserve … and maybe then I can start calling you “real smart”.

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Will Wall Street ever be fixed?

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When it comes to the financial industry, there is a major fallacy that exists: that Wall Street deals only with elite, rich people who deserve to lose their money, and that Mom and Pop are not directly affected by the antics and conflicted practices in the industry.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even when Wall Street CEOs are hauled in front of Congress—as Lloyd Blankfein was amid the SEC fraud charges against Goldman Sachs, and as Jamie Dimon was after JPMorgan Chase lost $6 billion on bad trades—they try to make this argument. “We are all big boys.” “We are all sophisticated institutional investors who know exactly what we are doing.”

But stop and think about this for a second. Whose money is being played with anyway?

Look at just the recent scandals: Who gets affected when a county in Alabama trades a structured derivative with JPMorgan that goes sour, and brings the county closer to bankruptcy? Who gets impacted when a government such as Greece or Italy trades derivatives with Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan to cover up its debt and kick its problems down the road? Who ultimately loses when Morgan Stanley misprices the Facebook IPO and mutual funds lose billions of dollars of retirement and 401(k) savings?

Mom and Pop, that’s who.

Whose lives are affected when a sovereign entity such as Libya loses a billion dollars of its own people’s money betting on derivatives? Who loses when Barclays and other major banks rig the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR), the interest rate that underpins trillions of dollars in student loans and mortgages? Whose savings evaporate when JPMorgan brokers sell underperforming mutual funds to their clients to generate more fees?

The list goes on and on and on. All this ultimately affects the citizens, teachers, pensioners, and retirees whose destinies are tied to these organizations that are managing their money. Mom and Pop are more affected by the bad behavior on Wall Street than anyone else—it is their money on the line. But how does Wall Street make so much money, anyway? Surely there are times when they must lose? Don’t count on it. Think about this:

There are certain quarters when a Wall Street bank makes money every single day of that quarter. Yes: ninety days in a row. One hundred percent of the time, it generates a profit. How is this even possible?

Two words: asymmetric information. The playing field is not even. The bank can see what every client in the marketplace is doing and therefore knows more than everyone else. If the casino could always see your cards, and sometimes even decided what cards to give you, would you expect it ever to lose?

Here’s how it happens: Because Wall Street is facilitating business for the smartest hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and corporations in the world, it knows who is on every side of a trade. It can effectively see everyone’s cards. Therefore, it can bet smarter with its own money.

Worse, if Wall Street can persuade you to trade a custom-made structured derivative that serves the firm’s needs, it is as if your cards have been predetermined. Certainly not much scope for the casino to lose in this scenario.

Now consider where the gambling takes place. In a real casino, it is on a casino floor with cameras all over the place. Even if you don’t like Las Vegas gambling, it is regulated. On Wall Street, the gambling can be moved to a darkened room where nothing is recorded, observed, or tracked. With opaque over-the-counter derivatives, there are no cameras. In this darkened, smoke-filled room, there is maximum temptation to try to exploit clients and conflicts of interest. And this temptation and lack of transparency are what led to the global financial crisis in 2008.

Finally, think about the dealer. Your salesperson or trader might seem objective—like a friendly casino dealer who jokes around and is on your side—but there are times when he or she might be trying to steer you toward the thing that makes the casino the most money. If you were playing blackjack and you had 19, would you ever expect the dealer to tell you to hit? Sometimes, on Wall Street, they urge you to take another card.

Ironically, real casinos may actually be better regulated than Wall Street banks. The SEC and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) were not able to stop what led up to the crisis, and are still struggling to put appropriate measures in place to limit the conflicts I’ve described. With all these advantages, how can Wall Street ever lose? Even real casinos don’t make money every single day of the quarter.

As proof of this information advantage: Why do Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase mutual funds —housed in their respective asset-management divisions on the other side of the Chinese wall—underperform their peers, as measured by Morningstar? Why do some hotshot traders from banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan go out on their own, start their own hedge funds, and flounder? Because they no longer have the advantage of being able to see everyone’s cards. No more asymmetric information, no more batting a thousand, when you are out on your own without unfair advantage.

The reforms Wall Street is pushing back the hardest against are in the areas it knows are the most profitable: opaque derivatives and proprietary trading. But these also happen to be the areas that are most dangerous to the stability of the financial system. The Wall Street lobby has already spent more than $300 million trying to kill measures to regulate derivatives (so that they are brought into the light of day and become transparent on exchanges), and to eliminate proprietary trading so banks can no longer bet against their customers using their information advantage as prescribed by the Volcker Rule. Wall Street hates transparency and will fight as hard as possible to prevent it from coming.

I am a hardcore capitalist. I am all for people getting filthy rich and for businesses making as much money as possible. It is the fuel that keeps our economy growing and wealth should be an aspiration to motivate entrepreneurs everywhere. But I want it to be done fairly. I just don’t believe that capitalism is embedded with some kind of assumption that ethical boundaries should be pushed as far as possible, and that deceiving your customers is necessary to generate maximum returns.

I believe in a business model that is long-term-oriented, where there is an intrinsic fiduciary responsibility to do right by your clients so they will keep coming back to you. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also better for business. You will make just as much money—but you will make it more slowly and steadily and transparently. This should be good for shareholders, too, who like a predictable revenue stream and a steadier book of business. Today’s take-the-money-and-run model is just not responsible, or sustainable.

How can it be that years after the crisis nothing has been done to fix any of this? Don’t we live in the greatest democracy in the world? People should be outraged that there is no political will to fix a problem that hurts everyone, enriches a super minority that has learned to rig the game, and could threaten the world with another calamity in a few years’ time.

People know that there is something deeply wrong with the system, but very few can put their finger on what the problem is. After the crash in 1929, the U.S. Senate conducted the Pecora Hearings, to investigate the causes of the crash. This inquiry led to real reforms that held banks accountable and eliminated the abusive practices that had caused the stock market crash. This was followed by decades of calm in the financial system.

If I ever achieve anything in my financial activism, I hope it will be to empower some people with enough understanding to call their congressman, congresswoman, or senator and ask this question: Why don’t you have the guts to do the same thing?

Share your thoughts…

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Is Greed Good for the Goal of Improving Society?

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Remember the infamous quote of villain financier Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street…back in 1987?

“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed–for lack of a better word–is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms–greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge–has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed–you mark my words–will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA”.

I guess in this context, Gekko is using “greed” to define the constant desire for more, whether someone else has it or not.  He likens it to an evolutionary drive, that the need for more makes us figure out how to get it faster, more efficiently, and ultimately, easier.  And that this, in turn, results in benefits to everyone.

This is clearly a very particular definition of greed, and if you look at it from that perspective, it is indeed “good” in that it is a simple motivator that derives benefits beyond the individual actor.  In essence, it’s an “ends justify the means” argument.

Though this was quoted over two decades ago in one of the most controversial Hollywood movies ever, it resonates more than ever today… The only difference is that it is occurring at a much bigger scale.

So what do you make of it? Is greed good?

I guess as with any question like this, we need to start with the word “good.”

It is a fault of our language that “good” is most often used in an unqualified way. This is a symptom of our natural preference for dualistic thought. So what does unqualified ‘good’ mean?

Is greed good if your goal is monetary gain?  Absolutely, it’s the prime motivator.  Is greed good if your goal is running a successful soup kitchen?  Probably not.

Is greed “good” for the goal of living a happy life?  It could be, because it motivates you to improve your life in very real ways; on the other hand, there’s a fair amount of research that indicates over-attachment to material belongings draws your focus from other aspects of life that pay higher happiness dividends (personal relationships, self-improvement, etc).

Is greed “good” for the goal of improving society?  I doubt it.  I suppose it could motivate you to amass more resources, which you could then apply to humanitarian causes, but a very greedy person would probably also be unlikely to part with it.

Another way to use the unqualified “good” is as a sort of estimated sum of how effective greed is for helping you meet each of your goals, weighted by priority.  Let’s call this the “all-in-all” meaning.

So, is greed “good” in the all-in-all sense?  Will greed help you live a happier life?

From a wide-scope approach, it might be said that an economy of greedy people is an economy of motivated, productive workers.  This might be true, to a certain extent.  However, a society of extremely greedy people would mean a society of very stingy people; I doubt a country of greedy financiers, sitting on their money would lead to a robust, healthy economy.

But this is all about your average person.  Aberrations exist.  What if you’re not like most people?  What if poverty starvation is a serious possibility in your life?  Well then yes, greed would be a good thing to have.  What if material wealth is the big thing that makes you happy?  The only thing that makes you happy?  What if greed is your only motivator, the only thing that gets you out of bed and drives you to accomplish?  Then yes, having greed would be good in relation to your goals.  You might get better results though from examining your priorities and possibly changing your goals.

So in general, I would say that a little greed is good; it’s nature’s way of getting you to take care of your self-interests.  It’s also one of the major forces that keep societies progressing past the survival point.  Too much greed though poisons you.  There are countless examples of callous damage done to the world by the business community, and the only cause we can point to is human greed.

Bottom Line: I believe greed is ‘good’ only to the extent that it can be channeled productively.  Most of modern greed leads to people skimming money off of the productive and creative members of society; it results in many people with enormous intelligence and capability dedicating their lives to essentially worthless endeavors (such as predicting minor movements in stocks, bonds, currencies, etc.).  It also leads to frivolous lawsuits, ‘gaming the system’, overcharging and overbilling, etc.  It also leads individuals to steal and engage in other criminal activities.  Greed – when it leads one to invent, create, increase productivity, work harder, etc. can be good.  But it doesn’t always or even rarely has that effect.

I have no problem with people that amass large amounts of wealth — but if it pools up, it leads to problems. Wealth, like water, needs to move. Ideally that motion through society will be generated by the heavenly virtue that is classically contrasted with the deadly sin of greed.

Share your thoughts…

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